The School of Wash: How Angels manager Ron Washington learned to play the game he loves

By | March 4, 2024

TEMPE, Ariz. – Baseball is a sport with a million personalities. It’s a game full of introverts, extroverts and everything in between, with the person on the top step of each dugout tasked with managing all those personalities.

And running around the backfields of the Angels’ Spring Training Complex with a fungo is a guy who might have the most personality in the major leagues. At 71 years old, Ron Washington is the MLB’s oldest manager, but don’t tell him that. His players don’t know either.

“He goes there every day at 6 a.m. and makes sure he’s the first one,” Angels shortstop Zach Neto said. “And you’re trying to beat him. It’s always a challenge. But it shows how important this is to him. It makes us want to be better.”

Washington – who spent eight seasons at the helm of the Rangers, including back-to-back trips to the World Series in 2010 and 2011 – is finally doing it again this season after a decade coaching at third base in Oakland and Atlanta. The Angels manager is not only one of the game’s best personalities, but he could also be one of baseball’s best teachers. And even though he’s no longer a coach, don’t expect the classes to stop.

“I’ve won everywhere I’ve been, my man,” Washington told Yahoo Sports. “I know how to prepare. I know how to motivate.”

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“They had someone who really believed in them first, right?”

Washington, who is known in football as an on-field coaching wizard, has had several star students over the years. He has coached Eric Chavez, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Michael Young, Freddie Freeman, Marcus Semien, Matt Olson and Austin Riley, among others. After two decades of coaching, Washington’s impact is visible in the major leagues.

Another of his disciples is Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson, whose relationship with Washington began in 2016, during Swanson’s rookie season with the Braves. They say all great teachers believe in their students before those students even believe in themselves, and Washington is no different.

“Whether it’s someone in business, someone in baseball, basketball, you name it, [if] they are successful at what they do, they had someone who really believed in them first, right?” Swanson told Yahoo Sports. “And so is Wash. He instills this true faith – and not like a false faith – a true faith in his players and is able to get that out of everyone.

“And I think that’s what makes him such a good motivator. And he also loves the game of baseball. So when you put the two together, he inspires you because he believes that.”

Swanson has one of the most impressive baseball resumes you will find. The 30-year-old is a former No. 1 overall pick, two-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove Award winner and World Series champion. Still, even he acknowledges that there were times when he needed some help along the way.

On one of his first days in Atlanta, Swanson went through his methodical pregame routine with Washington, but unlike most days for Swanson, things didn’t go his way.

“I didn’t catch them the way I wanted to,” he said.

Washington knew it too, but he wasn’t about to let his young shortstop take the fall for himself.

“I went up to him and said, ‘That wasn’t really a good day,’” Swanson said. ‘And he said, ‘Stop right there. That was a great day. I’d rather you come out and go to work and find out you don’t have it than not work and you would never have known.”

“His faith and work ethic are his differentiators. He’s all about work, and he’ll tell you so.

Ron Washington made a big impact on Dansby Swanson during their years together in Atlanta.  (Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images)Ron Washington made a big impact on Dansby Swanson during their years together in Atlanta.  (Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images)

Ron Washington made a big impact on Dansby Swanson during their years together in Atlanta. (Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images)

“Nothing they experience, they won’t be there.”

By being hands-on, Washington has also built relationships with its players over the years. His routines are known to be tedious and painstaking, but they have helped him turn below-average defensemen, like Semien early in his career, into Gold Glove winners, which Semien became in 2021. Even when players are no longer with Washington, his routines often carry over to their new teams.

“I’ll be honest with you, you know, Wash was one of those guys that would get his bag of balls and his fungo, and I wouldn’t see him again until the end of the day,” the Braves manager said. Brian Snitker told Yahoo Sports this spring when asked what camp looks like without Washington.

For both Snitker in Atlanta and Bob Melvin in Oakland, having someone with Washington’s ability to teach on the court, connect with players off it and get the best out of everyone was a priority. Now the Angels are hoping all of that will carry over into Washington’s first managerial job since 2014, and he has tried to build a staff in Anaheim that reflects him.

“I look at [my coaches] as experts,” he said. “If it’s something I need to be involved in, I’ll be involved. If it’s something I need my coaches to take care of, I’m going to sit back and watch them take care of it [it].

“I want my players to feel that [the coaches] know what they are talking about. I want my players to feel that they are loved, and that they won’t be there if they go through something. … That’s the way I run things, you know, but I’ll be involved in everything.”

Ron Washington brings his unique style and big personality to the Angels this year.  (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)Ron Washington brings his unique style and big personality to the Angels this year.  (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)

Ron Washington brings his unique style and big personality to the Angels this year. (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)

‘They can speak for the Mike Trouts’

Managing is much more than writing names on a lineup card; To teach players, you first need to be able to reach them. Washington has built his name on the ability to connect with players, but in this outing with the Angels, it’s also important to him that his players can communicate with each other.

This spring, Washington has had young players, including Neto, catcher Logan O’Hoppe and first baseman Nolan Schanuel, leading rallies for their veteran teammates. He hopes the responsibility creates an environment where players respect each other.

“I want them to feel like adults,” Washington said. “I want them to feel like they can stand up for their teammates and their peers [and] say what they have to say. … They can speak for the Mike Trouts. They can speak for the Anthony Rendons. They can speak. And then those guys will hear them and understand where they’re coming from.

That message has been received by the young players in the clubhouse, where Washington’s loud personality resonates, making it easier to follow his lead.

“When he gets going, man, no one can stop him,” Neto said with a smile. “But it’s true, dude. He communicates with you. He wants to make sure we stay on top of each other. Hold each other accountable. Making sure there’s nothing we’re holding inside and making sure we let it out.”

Baseball has changed a lot in the decade since Washington was last at the helm — and players have changed, too. But if there’s one thing working in Washington’s favor heading into this season, it’s that he’s never left the game. As the sport evolved, he had a front row seat – and he continued to learn while he taught.

“One thing I’ve learned since I stopped working as a manager is patience,” he said. ‘Because these children are younger and you certainly have to teach them a lot more. But as far as the game of baseball goes, there is nothing different about the game. … It’s been the same. You see the ball. Hit the ball. Walk. Field. To throw.

“That hasn’t changed.”

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